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Behind the jargon: The best cameraphones explained

8th November 2017

All sorts of baffling jargon is used to describe smartphone cameras. And if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t know their aperture from their autofocus, things can get confusing pretty quickly.

But whether you’re after professional-quality photos or just sharing a picture of your salad on Instagram; here at EE, we know how important a decent camera is. It can mean the difference between hundreds of ‘likes’, or just a handful.

So allow us to explain some of the trickier terms you’re likely to come across – and give you a headstart before you hit the shops.

The more megapixels the better?
Your digital photos are made up of millions of tiny units called pixels. Generally speaking, the more pixels making up the image, the sharper it is. Which means you can crop or zoom in, without your mates starting to resemble extras from The Lego Movie. As you’d expect, it pays to explore devices with a higher megapixel (MP) count. But it’s certainly not the be-all and end-all. A camera with high megapixels means little if it has a dodgy sensor or doesn’t focus properly. And speaking of sensors…

How smart is your sensor?
Unlike megapixels, when it comes to your smartphone’s sensor, size definitely is everything. Here’s how it works: when your camera lens opens, light floods in and forms an image on the sensor, which in turn produces your finished photo. The bigger the sensor, the more detail you’ll capture – as well as better focus on moving subjects, even in poor light. Just to confuse things, the smaller the number, the better. For instance, a 1/2.5in sensor is bigger and produces more detail than a 1/3in one. So don’t be fooled by big numbers when you’re browsing.

OIS – good news for shaky hands
Ever failed to capture that special moment due to a sudden outburst of the shakes? Well that’s where Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) comes in. If you suffer a last-minute wobble, clever gyroscopes inside your smartphone detect the movement and tweak the photo to compensate for your clumsiness. Most new smartphones include OIS as standard, making blurred photos pretty much a thing of the past.

Aperture – let there be light
Ever wondered what those weird f-numbers on your smartphone box mean? Wonder no more! It’s the size of the aperture – the tiny hole which light passes through on its way into the camera. The lower the f-number, the more light reaches the sensor, making your photos richer in detail and less fuzzy. Most smartphones aren’t like Digital SLRs, where you can tweak the aperture depending on your needs – although you can get apps that simulate this. As a rule of thumb, anything between f1.7 – and f2.2 will do the job nicely.

Are two lenses better than one?
Lots of devices brag about having dual lenses, but does it really make a difference? Well, yes actually, it does. Dual lenses serve a different purpose depending on the device. On some models, like the LG G5, they work together to take ultra-wide, panoramic photos. Other phones, like the Huawei P9, use one camera to capture the colour, and the other to capture the detail, then combine them for a rich, ultra-sharp end result. Either way, having two lenses will make your camera perform considerably better.

Auto-focus – keeping things sharp
So you’ve got a shedload of megapixels and a hefty sensor, but if it’s all just a blur, your Instagram followers won’t be erupting anytime soon. Auto-focus is the clever tech that keeps everything looking razor sharp. And by honing in on your subject, creates the clarity we expect from pro shots. Look for devices with ‘phase detection’ or ‘pixel focus’ auto-focus, rather than the more standard ‘contrast detection’, which isn’t quite as smart.

And what on earth is HDR?
Ever noticed that little ‘HDR’ box pop up after hitting the wrong button on your iPhone? Don’t worry, most people have no idea what it is, either. It stands for ‘High Dynamic Range’, and gives you more true-to-life results – mainly by offering killer exposure across both the brighter and darker areas of the shot. It works by taking several identical photos at different exposure settings, then curating them into a single, crystal-clear image. As you might expect, it takes up a bit more memory than a standard photo – but the results are always worth it.

White balance – that warm, fuzzy feeling
Do your selfies occasionally make you look slightly like a character from The Simpsons? Well, don’t put the doctor’s surgery on speed-dial – it’s all about the colour of the light. Light bulbs produce a notoriously yellowish hue, which we’ve traditionally had to tolerate in our photos. Just take a look at your parents’ old Christmas snaps and you’ll know exactly what we mean. Luckily these days, though, you can adjust the white balance using most smartphone filters, making everybody look a little more real again… which rather neatly brings us to:

What are ALL those filters for?
Of course, we all know what filters are; they let you swap faces with your pet hamster, or give your mate puppy ears. But while we’re more than used to tinkering with the filters on Snapchat and Instagram, it’s definitely worth looking into your camera filters in more depth. Your device will come pre-loaded with all sorts of filters than can turn a good photo into a great one, like adjusting the lighting and sharpening the focus. If that’s not enough, apps like Camera Zoom FX and DSLR Camera can ape some of the features you get on a digital SLR – like ISO, shutter speed and exposure – which are usually fixed on smartphones. The cleverness is just endless!

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